How the godfathers of punk kept the faith
New Yorkers Alan Vega and Marty Rev were punks before punk was invented, known in the ’70s for their violent gigs and raging synth rock. Now they’re hip again, with Bono, REM and Radiohead citing them as influences
YOU MAY NOT have heard of American duo Suicide, but you will have heard of the groups they influenced. Depeche Mode, N e w O r d e r , Moby, Radiohead — almost every techno or industrial act, or rock band that uses synthesisers, has cited Suicide as an influence.
Bono said U2 were listening to Suicide’s song Cheree when they wrote With Or Without You. Bruce Springsteen, their early supporter and friend, has recorded a cover version of their song Dream Baby Dream. Suicide’s eponymous 1977 debut album has been hailed as “the Sgt Pepper of electronica”, while REM have described them as “the true sound of New York”.
And their confrontational performances, which often resulted in orgies of violence and destruction, led Joe Strummer, frontman of The Clash, to call vocalist Alan Vega “one of the bravest men I have ever seen on a stage”.
But they were not always this highly regarded. “Even the punks didn’t like Suicide,” says Vega today, his thick accent closer to Jackie Mason than a Bronx hoodlum. “We were the ultimate punks because even the punks hated us.”
Did he and musical partner Marty Rev relish their ultimate pariah status, being spat at and having everything from bottles to axes hurled at them?
“Well, it made it difficult to get gigs because there would be riots every time. At one gig in the Hague, the police sprayed the theatre with teargas. At another in France I got punched on the nose and Marty had to fight off stage invaders with his spare hand.
“We had a reputation as the band everyone loved to hate, and I kind of enjoyed that. But there were times when we thought we were insane. It almost pushed me towards a nervous breakdown. We confronted and challenged the audience. We weren’t entertainers — it wasn’t an escape from people’s problems.”
Vega draws a shocking parallel between the aural assault of Suicide at their confrontational ’70s peak — Rev’s ear-punishing keyboard drones and Vega’s bloodcurdling arsenal of yelps and screams — and the darkest period in Jewish history. “When the Jews were shipped off to the concentration camps, to Dachau, Auschwitz or Treblinka, they would arrive and there would be a beautiful station and they looked like quite nice places. But then they’d walk past the nicely painted walls through a door right into hell. And that’s exactly what Marty and I were doing with Suicide: we were giving them Treblinka. The audience would walk through the door of the venue and they’d be in hell. We were angry and we wanted to wake people up. The Vietnam War was raging, Nixon — who I hated — was in charge and the whole country was collapsing. We were saying: ‘Wake up, man! You’ve got to change this shit!’”
Despite their torn clothes, their choice of band name and the individual aliases they assumed in the early days — Nasty Cut and Marty Maniac — Vega and Rev were not your average semi-literate, cartoonnihilist delinquents proposing chaos for its own sake: there was a vast difference between Sid Vicious and Suicide.
Vega, born Alan Bermowitz in 1938, was brought up in a poor blue-collar household by his mother and diamond-setter immigrant father. “They were from another planet,” he says. “Fortunately they didn’t ever get to see me perform, otherwise they would have put me in a mental hospital.”
He describes himself as a loner who initially studied physics and art at Brooklyn College before pursuing a career making light sculptures at some of the most prestigious art galleries in New York.
Rev, real name Martin Reverby, was an avant-garde jazz buff studying classical music at New York University who got expelled for refusing to toe the line. Vega remembers the day in 1971 when Rev turned up at the Project of Living Artists, an artists’ space he was managing in Lower Manhattan.
“He was a strange-looking Jewish guy with bushy hair like an afro and a blue turtle-neck who sat down on the floor and started tapping these pencils. He was out there — the first guy to play jazz rock on keyboards, long before Weather Report,” he marvels, comparing their meeting to those epoch-making first encounters between Keith Richards and Mick Jagger and Lennon and McCartney. “It was,” he says, “a miracle.”
Vega and Rev became part of a music New York scene densely populated with Jews, including Joey Ramone, Lenny Kaye of the Patti Smith Group, Richard Hell of the Voidoids and Chris Stein of Blondie. Vega even jokingly refers to the legendary club CBGBs where all those bands played as “one big synagogue”.
As Suicide, they created a new type of electronic rock’n’roll — they were a scifi Sex Pistols, before the Pistols existed. Theproblemwas,nobodyknewwhatto make of them or their guitar-, bass- and drums-free line-up. In fact, they were the prototype synth-duo, the model for Soft Cell, Pet Shop Boys and the rest, with the lugubrious keyboardist and gregarious frontman.
“If we were the future, it was a future that nobody wanted,” admits Rev, who was once approached by the Pistols’ manager Malcolm McLaren to form a boy-girl outfit with Blondie’s Debbie Harry. “There was nothing about us that was familiar.”
Rev is as thoughtful as Suicide’s music is visceral. Of his religious beliefs, he says: “I can’t box myself into any one system of practice or ritualised thought for very long.” And he describes his upbringing as “social-oriented humanitarianism; non-religious bordering on agnostic”. He admits, however, that he later “studied in-depth ancient Hebrew texts for a period of years”. He concedes that he “can’t imagine living in a world where there isn’t a God”. He admires non-believers but cannot quite make that leap himself. “Having that sense of awe about the universe, which is what religion is to me, I wonder how they can live without that. It’s like love — it doesn’t have to be real or true, but to live without it… It’s hard enough to get up in the morning as it is.”
Vega is similarly ambivalent. He alludes to the “miraculous” nature of his career with Suicide and fateful meeting with Rev, begging the question — does he believe in a higher power? “I distrust the name ‘God’ but, yes, I do believe in a higher power,” he says. He adds that he shares the rationalist stance of Spinoza, the 17th-century Jewish philosopher and “pantheist theologian”. “God is in all of us,” he says, before deciding: “There is an immense power. There has to be.”
After years of changing his back-story, telling journalists his mother was Catholic, he is finally proud of his roots. “I made that up to fuel the myth, because really, my whole life has been a myth,” he says. Now he can come clean. “It’s funny, but I’ll never stop feeling Jewish, no matter how much I might talk my way out of it. I’m very proud to be part of this tradition. It’s brought me a lot of knowledge.”
He is equally proud of Suicide and flattered by the attention of musician-fans — artists as varied as Springsteen, Nick Cave, Primal Scream and Julian Cope are lined up to release cover versions of Suicide classics every month from now until 2010. Even Amy Winehouse is apparently keen to get involved.
“There’s an authenticity to our music,” he considers. “It’s country ’n’ eastern music, or New York City blues. I sometimes call it ‘Two Jews’ Blues’. Really, though, we’re our own category. People always say: ‘You’re too much in the future.’ And I tell them: ‘No, you’re too much in the past.’” To mark Alan Vega’s 70th birthday, blastfirstpetite is releasing monthly limited-edition 10-inch vinyl singles featuring versions of Suicide songs, starting this month
Marty Rev ( left) and Alan Vega, aka Suicide. Vega describes their meeting in 1971 as a “miracle”